Joe Valachi was born on September, 22, 1904 in Manhattan’s East Harlem, a Little Italy neighborhood second in size to the one in Lower Manhattan. At the time of Valachi‘s birth, this East Harlem neighborhood was being terrorized by the notorious Black Hand extortion crew headed by Joe “The Clutch Hand” Morello and his right-hand- man, Ignazio “Lupo the Wolf” Saietta. Ciro Terranova, called the “Artichoke King” was also in this august group, but we’ll get to him later.
Both of Valachi’s parents were born in Naples, Italy. They had 17 children, only six of whom survived infancy. Valachi was the second oldest of what was left of his parent’s brood. Not being educated, Valachi’s father worked menial jobs. He tried peddling vegetables from a pushcart, and when that didn’t pan out too well, he worked as a drudge on a garbage scow.
“My father was a hardworking man,” Valachi said. “But he drank too much and my mother always had a black eye. The neighborhood in Harlem was pretty tough in those days, and you could hardly walk around without catching a bullet.”
The Valachi family bounced around East Harlem, before finally settling at 312 East 108th Street. The two grownups and six children were cramped into a tiny three-room apartment, with no hot water and no bathtub. For blankets, Mama Valachi sewed together old cement bags. Still, it was better than sleeping in the streets, which, at the beginning of the 20th Century, was the fate of thousands of poor Italian immigrants.
There was a coal stove in the Valachi living room. It was propelled by whatever coal the Valachi family could steal, and sometimes by scraps of wood snatched off East Harlem’s sidewalks and gutters.
“My parents stored the coal and wood in the room me and my brothers slept in,” Valachi said. “It got so bad the whole room was stocked with coal and wood, and boy, was it dirty.”
Valachi’s bedroom was infested with bedbugs, and to get a good night’s sleep, Valachi sometimes sneaked out of his apartment late at night and sacked out in a wagon parked in a nearby horse stable. The floor of the wagon was hard, cold, and damp.
“But at least there were no bedbugs,” Valachi said.
Living in such squalor and having no way to bathe, the Valachi family often availed themselves of the bathhouse on 109th Street and Second Avenue.
“To get into the bathhouse sometimes the line would be a block and a half long,” Valachi said. “Then when you were in the baths, they would give you only so much time, and you had to get out of there. Believe me, it wasn’t much time.”
As far as his formal schooling, Valachi was an habitual truant with a penchant for violence.
“I was supposed to go to school, but to be honest about it, I didn’t,” Valachi said. “Once I was picked up by a truant officer, but all I got was a warning. Then when I was eleven I hit a teacher in the eye with a rock. I didn’t mean to do it; I was just trying to scare her.”
After being arrested for the rock-throwing incident, Valachi was shipped off to the New York Catholic Protectory, which was a home for wayward boys, or for orphans. There, Valachi was shocked and dismayed when he discovered some of the brothers who ran the Protectory had hand trouble with the boys, in more ways than one.
“You wouldn’t believe what some of them were like; fooling around with the young kids,” Valachi said. “I don’t want to get into that. But most of them were just tough.”
The toughest brother was Brother Abel, who was not shy about roughing up the boys more than just a little bit. Brother Abel ran the tailor shop and the Protectory, and he would use his tape stick to correct a child, even for the smallest infractions.
“He would lay into us with that tape stick something awful,” Valachi said. “It didn’t matter if we did anything wrong or not. The best thing to do was to stay out of his way, unless you were looking for a beating.”
One day, while Valachi was still a resident at the New York Catholic Protectory, Brother Abel had the good grace to die. His body was laid out in Protectory’s chapel. This turned out not to be a smart thing for the heads of the Protectory to do.
“There were about 300 of us kids lined up to pay our last respects to Brother Abel,” Valachi said. “I was near the end of the line and when it came my turn to view the body, I almost fainted. Brother Abel’s chest was all filled with spit, so what could I do? I spit on him too.”
When Valachi was 14-years-old, he was released from the Protectory. Valachi immediately got a job with his father working on the garbage scow. This didn’t last too long, because after just a few weeks dealing with garbage, Valachi figured he could make more money stealing than he and his father could make, combined, working on the garbage scow.
By the time he was 18, Valachi was a charter member of a second-story gang called “The Minute Men.” The gang gave themselves that name because they claimed they could burglarize an apartment, or a business, in a New York minute. Valachi rarely took part in the actual burglary, but because he was so good behind the wheel of a car, he was known as a crack getaway driver.
“The Minute Men were the talk of the underworld,” Valachi said. “We were real cowboys. The other gangs envied us. When we were bouncing around town to different cabarets, people who ask who our wheelman was, because we never got caught. When my pals pointed me out as the guy, I got bought a lot of drinks.”
Valachi got his first taste of hard time as the result of a robbery gone awry at a silk distributor on 177th Street and Tremont Avenue in the Bronx. Valachi’s was driving a Packard touring car with three of the gang in tow when he stopped in front of the sore. The gang had cased the joint for several weeks. Since the store didn’t have a Holmes Alarm System, they figured it would be a cinch to break the window, jump inside the store, grab as much silk as they could in approximately 60 seconds, and jam that silk into Valachi’s car.
As the crew exited the store, Valachi spotted a police car in his rear view mirror. After his three pals piled into the car, Valachi felt a gun pressed against the side of his head.
A cop named Slater barked at Valachi, “I finally got you after three years. Get out of the car!”
However, Valachi was not itching to be taken.
After telling Slater he would fully cooperate, Valachi made a motion like he was exiting the car. Then, he suddenly dove under the dashboard, and with his right hand still on the wheel, he hit the gas with his left hand. The car screeched away from the curb, and Slater, along with the occupants of two more police cars that had descended upon the area, commenced firing. The Packard’s windows were completely blown out, and Valachi was hit in the arm. But still he would not stop.
Doing 80 miles per hour, Valachi sped through the Bronx and headed towards the Willis Avenue Bridge, which connects the Bronx with Valachi’s East Harlem neighborhood in Manhattan. With three police cars in hot pursuit, Valachi barreled down the Grand Concourse, dodging in an out of traffic, until he reached the Willis Avenue Bridge.
Valachi zipped across the bridge, and he zigzagged through the narrow Manhattan one-way streets, some of which he drove down the wrong way. Finally, Valachi stopped on a side street, and he looked behind him. No police cars were in sight.
Valachi checked his injured arm, and he saw that the bullet had passed through flesh and had exited the other side without striking bone.
Valachi was only slightly injured and safe at home. Or so he thought.
The Minute Men might have been quick, but they also were stupid. Instead of using bogus license plates, the crooks had slightly bent the plates on the car, figuring by doing this the cops would get a distorted read on the plates.
That didn’t happen.
The car was registered to Valachi, and the police arrested him the following day at his apartment.
Valachi, not yet being a canary, dummied up, and he refused to name his accomplices. This led to a six-week stay in the Bronx County jail, after which Valachi was brought to court. Valachi’s lawyer, Dave Goldstein, had a few tricks up his sleeve. First, he told the court that his client would plead guilty to “attempted robbery.”
The persecutors and the judge seemed ready to go along with the plea, until the owner of the silk store stood up in court and screamed, “What do you mean ‘attempted robbery.’ I lost over $10,000 in silk. Where’s my silk?”
At the advice of his counsel, Valachi spoke up in court.
“I threw it into an empty lot,” Valachi said.
The “attempted robbery” charge went out the window, and Valachi was nailed with the charge of “armed robbery.”
Valachi, against on the advice of his attorney, pled guilty.
Luckily for Valachi, Goldstein knew how to maneuver in court to the advantage of his client.
Because Valachi was under twenty-one, the judge had the choice of sending him to the Elmira Reformatory for 18 months, for which Valachi had to do the entire eighteen months. But Goldstein thought Valachi would do better if the judge sentenced his as an adult.
The guidelines for adult sentencing were one year and three months to two years and six months. Goldstein figured Valachi, because this was his first offense, would get near the low end of the guidelines. This meant that with time off for good behavior, Valachi would actually get a sentence of only 11 months in prison. Since, Valachi would get credit for the time he had already spent in the Bronx County Jail, Valachi could be back on the street and earning is about nine months.
While Valachi was awaiting sentencing, Goldstein instructed Valachi how to trick the judge into treating Valachi like an adult. Goldstein told Valachi that on the day of his sentencing he was to strut into court like a gangster peacock. Goldstein figured the judge would be so annoyed at the 20-year-old Valachi’s attitude, he’d sentence him to prison instead of the reformatory.
Goldstein was right, but for the wrong reason.
The judge watched as Valachi played the role of a devil-may-care gangster to the hilt. Valachi swaggered into court, and while he stood before the judge, Valachi kept hunching his shoulders up and down like he saw the actors do in the silent mobster movies popular at the time.
The judge was not impressed.
“You think you’re fooling me with that tough guy act?” the judge told Valachi. “Well you’re not. But I’m going to give you just what you want. I’m going to send you where you want to go. And you know why? Because the sooner you’re out of prison, the sooner be in front of me again in court.”
Soon, Valachi was a resident at Sing Sing Prison and not too happy about his circumstances. For some reason, it took ten days for the prison staff to process Valachi into the system, and those ten days were no picnic. Valachi was shoved into a tiny cell, with no sanitary facilities, except for a small bucket which was emptied once a day.
But as soon as Valachi entered gen-pop, he was shocked by the amenities.
One night, soon after Valachi’s arrival, the Broadway musical, The Planation Review, was staged for the cons.
“I had such a great time, I couldn’t believe I was at Sing Sing,” Valachi said.
Valachi’s prison job was the standard gig of sledgehammering big rocks into little rocks, and the burly Valachi got himself into the best shape of his life.
But all good things must come to an end, and after he did the minimum nine-month stay at Sing Sing, Valachi was released onto the streets, and soon he was back with the Minutemen. In his absence, the Minutemen had gotten themselves a new driver, so instead of the glory of driving getaway, Valachi was reduced to the grunt work, like throwing garbage cans through store windows.